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James Gallagher interview, part two: 'I was only 21 then and all these people were just hating on me'

A crushing defeat to Ricky Bandejas in 2018 was a major stumbling block for James Gallagher's lofty ambitions but, as he tells Neil Loughran, that setback has turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him…

Since leaving school at 15, James Gallagher has dedicated his life to MMA - and the Strabane man is determined to go all the way to the top. Picture by Podge Twomey

IT’S the solitary life that suits him best. Sure, there’s those bulging eyes staring down his opponent from across the octagon, the almost cartoonish energy, frantically pacing back and forth.

In that moment he laps up everything the crowd has to offer but, away from the hype and hysteria, James Gallagher is most comfortable in his own company.

During childhood summers his mother used to drop her youngest off at the banks of the River Mourne before heading to work. On the way home she would pick up him up – sometimes with that day’s catch, more often with nothing other than a wide smile.

Relocating to Dublin was a necessity if he was anyway serious about a career in MMA, but as soon as he got far enough up the ladder Gallagher traded the hustle and bustle of the city for the quiet life in Fermanagh and a new home overlooking Lough Erne.

“Honestly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, getting out of Dublin. Ever since I was younger I’ve always been happy enough being on my own, away from everything and everybody. This is perfect.”

Throughout the various lockdowns he has been able to train twice a day in his own basement gym, while elite athlete status allows him to continue one-to-one sessions with former Fermanagh footballer Ryan McCluskey and his colleagues at FocusKN.

He misses little of his former life in the capital. Even his last fight was a lonesome enough affair, played out before an empty Allianz Cloud arena in Milan last October.

“I loved being able to hear the sound of every shot, of everything he was doing.

“At the end when I submitted him, you could hear his breathing… normally you can’t hear a thing.”

That first round defeat of England’s Cal Ellenor was Gallagher’s 12th outing since joining Bellator in 2016, and life lessons have been learned inside and outside the octagon during his rapid rise towards the top of the bantamweight rankings.

In 2019 he inked a big money six-fight deal with Bellator, a clear indication of the faith the company has in his ability to be a big game player. But that upping of the stakes hasn’t come without a cost.

“Your maturity level changes when you’re in the public eye… I had to grow up very quickly.

“Now I’ve got money to deal with. I’ve got a lot to protect, if I do one thing wrong then it’s in the media. Some people don’t understand that.

“If you’re on a night out and somebody comes up and tells you to f**k off and you clean him out, and you’re beside me, then that’s on me - no-one gives a f**k about you.

“A lot of people my age are nearly like ‘I’ll do what I want’ but I understand what I have to protect, and I know what will ruin this all, everything I’ve worked so hard for. So I don’t do any of that.

“Over time you realise you don’t need friends, you don’t need to be out and about. I don’t even want to be in those social zones because everyone’s trying to be your friend, or trying to get a picture, and then next thing they could be talking shit about you online after acting like they’re your best mate.

“That’s how messed up people are.”

Paranoia and suspicion, therefore, have become his closest allies.

“Awww, big time,” he fires back in an instant, “but for me it’s a good thing because I feel like I’m so on edge about stuff like that, I know there’s no c**ts around me then - and if there are they won’t last too long.

“I speak to very few of my friends from back in the day, no-one from school, not a single person. I have a couple of friends who are like 35 or older, late 30s, older men who are tight mates who I trust. That’s it really.”

Conor McGregor was once one of them, maybe more like an older brother, always on hand with advice or words of encouragement.

After backing up all the noise he made on the way to the top of UFC, McGregor was the crossover star MMA had been waiting for. Millions of young men and women across the globe became devout followers, the word of Conor taken as gospel.

With a ringside seat for that rise to superstardom, a teenage Gallagher was no different.

Conor McGregor was a team-mate of James Gallagher's at the Straight Blast Gym before becoming MMA's first crossover star. Picture by PA

“I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in if it wasn’t for Conor, either would anyone else in MMA. None of us would be earning any money if it wasn’t for Conor. That’s a fact.

“I’ve lived with Conor in Vegas, he was one of my best mates at a stage. We’d have hung out in John’s apartment, gone for coffee, I’d have been helping him with sparring. We’re not as close now, he’s away doing his thing and I’m doing mine but we still text.

“But you see in terms of what people say about me, I don’t care. That’s not up to me, that’s up to you and what you want to think of me. I know I’m doing good, I sleep good at night.

“I’m nothing like Conor. I’m just me and I know that, and I don’t give a f**k what you think. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem.

“One volley to the skull and I mightn’t remember my name again, I mightn’t be able to talk to my ma again. Every time I step in there, I’m putting my life on the line for this.

“These people who have never even stepped out of their comfort zone can’t tell me how I should think or what I should do. You’ve never been in that position, and you never will be. It’s a completely different headspace from what most people can understand.”

It is that mentality which prevents him from getting too comfortable, despite the trappings success has brought, while that single, solitary blemish on his record remains as a constant reminder of how swiftly the train can come off the tracks.

*******************

RICKY Bandejas was making his Bellator debut on August 17, 2018 at Sanford Pentagon in South Dakota. Knowing this was all new for his opponent, James Gallagher laid it on thick.

Before the fight, in the cage, in the seconds before the action got under way, Gallagher was in the American’s face, trying to grab the psychological edge before battle commenced.

“I’m so confident when I walk out because I don’t want to get beat. I believe in my level and I can say ‘I’m going to beat you mate’, but I still have to step in there and prove it.

“Why should I not try and rip him to shreds and pull him down? He’s going in there trying to take everything away from me. So I remind him of every flaw he has, of any slips he’s made as a person, I’m gonna keep telling him how good I am… and then I have to go and back all that up.”

Fail to back that up, though, and you best be ready to reap the whirlwind coming your way.

After four fights and four impressive wins, Bandejas was meant to be a stepping stone to bigger things and an opportunity for Gallagher to get his name out there Stateside. He did, but for the wrong reasons.

Halfway through the first round a big right hand sent him to the ground and, despite getting back to his feet, a kick to the face signalled the beginning of the end before Bandejas finished the job in brutal fashion.

“I’ve probably watched it back 500 times.

“Straight away in the car after, I was there with my mother, John [Kavanagh], the whole team. We’d rented a big yoke out so there was probably seven or eight of us, and someone said ‘did you not see the kick coming?’ I was like, ‘what kick?’

“I actually got angry and argued the point – ‘I f**king didn’t get kicked, he hit me with a right hook and then finished me off with a ground and pound’. When I watched it back, and there was 30-something seconds of the fight that I couldn’t even remember, that was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced.

“To make matters worse I picked up my phone a few minutes later and as I was looking down, everyone – including all these celebrities, fighters, guys like [UFC lightweight] Justin Gaethje, people I was fans of - were all just laughing at me.

“I was only 21 then, looking at that, and all these people were just hating on me. I was depressed about it, that’s being honest. I’ve never laughed at anybody for getting beat. I can’t get into that mindset at all.”

All he wanted was to go back to Ireland and hide away for a while. Instead, though, Gallagher appeared on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour show two days later, vowing to come back bigger and better.

“After the fight I was sitting there in tears but eventually I came to the realisation that this is not that big of a deal.

“My dad couldn’t come over to America but he was on the phone - ‘what happened? You got beat? Right… and? What are you gonna do now? Are you gonna quit? Well what are you crying for?’ Yeah I got beat, I took it on the chin. Yeah it was shit, but it was a loss.

“I put up a status saying something stupid like it was a lucky punch. I should have waited until my head cleared a little bit. You learn, because he didn’t hit me with a lucky punch, he caught me with a f**king good shot.

“That’s probably what annoyed me more than anything. People weren’t saying ‘that was some knockout, what a shot’... it was at me, not the other guy. Say how he outskilled me, say how he knocked my head off - say all that.

“But no-one wanted to do that, all they wanted was to see me get hurt and taken off my high horse. After that, and after reading all that, I just had the mindset that I’m going to be so much better that any one of you.

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Perhaps he got complacent, perhaps he was beginning to believe his own hype, but it was a warning shot and then some. Undefeated records do not carry the same clout in MMA as in boxing, but you can only come out on the wrong side so many times before you’re yesterday’s news.

Gallagher knows he cannot afford to get comfortable again. This is why he has always travelled from gym to gym, country to country, taking lessons – in some instances taking hidings – from the best.

It’s why he’s in Kansas City’s now, at the Fighting Alliance gym, the same place he spent much of December as preparation for what he believes will be a huge 2021 cranks up.

“If I’m the best in the gym, I don’t want to be there. I want the hardest around, beat me as much as you can, tap me out 20 times. I’ve been doing that from a young age and eventually it gets to the point where you can walk into a room of world class athletes and you feel like you’re with them.

“Going out to America last month was a wake-up call, training with these boys who are very good and it showed me two things – how shit I am, and also how exceptional I am compared to most people.

“There’s people there who are older, 50 fights behind them, number five and number six in UFC, competing at a world class level for as long as I’ve been training, and then I’m going in and submitting them seven times in one round and thinking ‘holy shit’. That’s unheard of.

“But it opened up my eyes too to some of the things I’m not doing, or the things that experience has brought to them that I maybe don’t have yet. But when it comes down to it, I showed myself how good I am going to be.”

And the lips won’t stop jabbering either. McGregor used his skill to capitalise on the opportunities that came his way, but his mouth played a massive part in creating them.

A phony, a fake, a wannabe, the same charges levied since the start of his career still follow Gallagher now. From where he stands though, the 24-year-old wouldn’t change a single thing.

“Being a world champion is all that matters to me – the day I become a world champion, my life changes beyond anything I could have imagined. That’s why I’m taking this to an extreme level and putting a pace on all these guys.

“After my last fight I said ‘give me that belt’ – that’s what got me the title shot because I’m fighting for it this year. If I hadn’t said that I might’ve had to wait another year, who knows?

“It’s done for me exactly what I wanted it to do. My last fight got about seven million views. Whether people like me or don’t like me, I couldn’t give two f**ks. They’re watching me.

“That’s why I have to make the most of this moment in my career - I have five years to maximise my potential. I want to be the biggest star in the whole game. I’m on this path and there’s nothing’s going to stop me.”

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